Maya Forstater: A conversion therapy ban threatens to leave unhappy children medicalised, sterilised and left with impaired sexual function

29 Nov

Maya Forstater is co-founder of Sex Matters.

Why is talking therapy being conflated with torture?

“Conversion therapy” is a term used for barbaric acts of abuse, such as electric shocks, starvation, chemical castration and corrective rape, intended to change or supress a person’s sexual orientation,. The UN Independent Expert on the topic has called for a global ban, citing “beatings, rape, electrocution, forced medication, isolation and confinement, forced nudity, verbal offense and humiliation.”

“Gay conversion is torture; the UK must ban it” say campaigners, and the Government has responded with a proposal to legislate and a rushed, six week consultation. But is there any evidence that these acts of violence are taking place in the UK?

Is there any evidence of physical acts of conversion therapy in the UK?

Police reports say no. Sex Matters has seen the responses to Freedom of Information requests for details of arrest or detention for electrocution or ‘corrective rape’ in the last five years from 24 police forces. All reported that there had been no such arrests or detention in that period.

Responses from Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, Humberside Police, Leicestershire Constabulary, Metropolitan Police Service, Northumbria Police, Staffordshire Police, Bedfordshire Police, Derbyshire Constabulary, Suffolk Constabulary, Cheshire Constabulary, City of London Police, Cleveland Police, Dorset Police, Hertfordshire Constabulary, Norfolk Constabulary, North Yorkshire Police, Northamptonshire Police, South Yorkshire Police, Warwickshire Police, Gwent Police, North Wales Police,  British Transport Police, Ministry of Defence Police and Port of Dover Police all stated this was not a crime they had seen.*

Press coverage says no. Nor have we been able to find any recent accounts of physical abuse in the name of conversion, undertaken in the UK, in the press.

International reports say no. There are no reports of abusive practices from the UK in the UN Independent Expert’s report. Research by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) does not cite any cases in the UK.

Campaigners rely on old case studies. The website of the campaign to ban conversion therapy features one heart wrenching tale: “Carolyn’s story”, about aversion therapy “in a dark room and strapped to a wooden chair. Doctors gave me painful electric shocks while images of women were projected on the wall in the front of me.”

Another story that was reported in the media concerned “​​Chris” (not his real name). Chris spoke of similarly painful and distressing sessions.

But what happened to Carolyn and Chris took place 50 years ago.

What’s more, were the same attempted today, it would already be illegal. As the consultation document states: “no act of physical violence done in the name of conversion therapy is legal in this country”.

Bracketing therapy with torture serves to scare off discussion

The Government’s proposal includes making conversion an “aggravator” to existing crimes; offering an uplift on sentencing. However it is not clear why there is an urgent need to legislate to create a deterrent for a practice which appears to have long since died out.

The reason is one of salesmanship. The promoters of the ban have packaged torture together with talking therapy, and used condemnation of abhorrent gay conversion therapy to promote a much wider ban – that also takes in the treatment of children with gender dysphoria.

It is clever marketing. Everyone agrees that the kind of thing that Carolyn and Chris went through is barbaric and should be banned. Few will pay enough attention to notice it is already illegal.

In July 2020, in response to the petition to ban conversion therapy, the House of Commons petitions committee set up a survey to collect evidence about people’s experiences and tweeted “How does #conversiontherapy affect the #LGBT community? Should it be made illegal?”

It was an ordinary democratic act of collecting evidence and views  on a complex and little-understood topic. But it was met with a pile-on of outraged posts accusing the petitions committee of “encouraging debate about whether torturing LGBT+ children should be allowed”.

The committee retreated, issued a statement of apology and deleted the tweet, saying: “We apologise. Our intention was to provide a platform for people to share their opinion with the Petitions Committee, and inform its case to the Government. Clearly we misjudged this.”

A recent review of international published research, commissioned by the Government from Coventry University, confirmed there is no evidence on the prevalence or nature of conversion practices in the UK, and that there are no robust studies showing evidence of harm related to “gender identity conversion”.

The scare tactics aren’t working any more

In 2021, we’ve seen this manufactured offence-taking once too often.

With the Kathleen Stock affair shining a light on bullying in universities, the BBC standing up to Stonewall, and public bodies leaving its Diversity Champions programme, the environment feels different.

Organisations are starting to realise they can stand firm and do their jobs, even in the face of name-calling and hyperbolic accusations.  When we are warned off talking about something, we should pay particular attention to that something.

The thing we are being warned off talking about here is that, at the heart of the proposal to ban conversion therapy, is a plan to criminalise delivering talking therapies to under-18 year olds “with the intention of changing them from being transgender”.

This will mean that if children claim to be transgender, therapists who try to explore  possible alternative diagnoses or causes for their distress could be accused of attempting conversion and face criminal investigation.

Future young people such as Keira Bell – who at 15 was sure she was a boy, and was given puberty-blockers, testosterone and a double mastectomy before the age of 21 – will have even less chance of avoiding permanent damage to their bodies in the name of “affirmation” of their gender identities.

More gender non-conforming children will be rushed onto Lupron (previously given to sex offenders as chemical castration), and then onto cross-sex hormones (as given to Alan Turing as “treatment” for homosexuality). And parents, teachers, therapists, social workers who try to make space and time for them to grow up and accept their bodies will be threatened with prison and professional ruin.

The ban against the spectre of outdated “conversion therapy” threatens to advance a savage modern form of conversion by which unhappy children are told that they can literally change sex – with the result that they are medicalised, sterilised and left with impaired sexual function before they have a chance to find out whether they are gay.

It may be that the Government can legislate carefully and avoid this outcome. But that won’t happen if every time anyone so much as mentions complexity,  or asks for evidence of the hyperbolic claims made in support of the proposed ban, they are accused of defending torture.

*Freedom of Information Requests were submitted to 50 police forces in Febuary 2021 asking this question: Gay ‘conversion therapy’ is an attempt to use medical, psychological and social methods to ‘convert’ someone away from their innate sexual orientation against their will. This has included the use of barbaric aversive treatments like electroshocks or even ‘corrective’ rape. Please provide me with the number of people a) detained by your force and b) arrested in each of the calendar years from 2010 up to and including 2020 for using 1) electroshocks or corrective rape on a victim because they were/are gay. Twenty-four police forces provided information, all in the negative.

Radical: Women are the casualties when judges capitulate to gender ideology

16 Jul

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. Together they founded Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate.

No doubt you sometimes think the things we write about in this column are esoteric — debates about pronoun policies seem far removed from real life. But sadly, quite frequently, there’s a development in the sex/gender debate that brings it to life in an immediate and visceral way. The story of Keira Bell, the young woman whose judicial review centred on the puberty blockers she’d been prescribed, and surgery she’d undergone to try and transition her to the male gender, was one such case.

And now we have the story of “FDJ” — a woman (whose anonymity is protected by the courts) who was held in a women’s prison alongside male prisoners. FDJ sought a judicial review of the Prison Service policy that allows co-habitation to happen. Earlier this month, we learned that she‘d been unsuccessful, and the policy was found to be lawful.

We wrote recently about the Care and Management of Transgender Individuals policy, set by the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice. This policy provides, broadly, that transwomen prisoners with a gender recognition certificate (GRC) will be housed automatically in the women’s prison estate (irrespective of any physical transition), unless risk assessment shows that the risk to women is “particularly high” (note that this accepts some risk is to be tolerated). Male prisoners who self-identify as women but do not have a GRC may be moved to a women’s prison after assessment by a specialist board.

FDJ’s legal action revealed that:

  • There are 34 transwomen prisoners without GRCs in women’s prisons. It’s unknown how many transprisoners with GRCs are in women’s prisons.
  • Many of these transwomen prisoners are sex offenders, convicted of assaulting women and children. It seems transwomen prisoners are more likely to be sex offenders than the male prison population as a whole, but again, prison service and MoJ data is incomplete and opaque.
  • There’ve been a number of sexual assaults on women prisoners by transwomen prisoners, but, yes, data on this is unclear, too — not least because the Prison Service doesn’t generally appear to record transwomen with a GRC as trans.
  • This situation causes many women prisoners (who’ve often had hard lives outside of prison, and been victims of sexual and domestic abuse by men) great anxiety and fear.

The court found, however, that the policy that led to this situation is lawful: the infringement of the rights of women prisoners can be justified by the “balance of rights” that favours respecting the gender identity of the transwomen prisoners. The provision of the Equality Act that allows trans people to be excluded from single sex spaces is permissive, not obligatory, so minsters are not required to apply it. Even if they did, excluding transwomen from women’s prisons might not be proportionate and legitimate: by existing case law, it is “impermissible” to exclude all transgender women prisoners from women’s prisons.

So, what can we draw from this case? First, it is striking that from the opening paragraph of the judgment, the judges use the contested and politicised terminology of gender-identity activists. Lord Justice Holroyde described the case as relating to “persons who identify as the opposite gender from that which was assigned to them at birth”. The outcome of the case will have come as no surprise, therefore, to any reader familiar with the capture of institutions by gender ideology.

Second, the haphazard data collection on transgender prisoners is troubling, and the court considered it “unsatisfactory”. This failing seems to stem in large part from the assumption that transgender prisoners with a GRC must automatically, and in all cases, be treated as biological women, and therefore they do not generally have data recorded about them in their capacity as trans.

Third, the judges considered that risk assessment and management is enough to safeguard women prisoners from the risks presented to them by the presence of males imprisoned alongside them.

In reality, the assumption that a “Complex Case Board” will always be able to weed out individual prisoners who are not sincere in their gender expression seems naïve. Evidence from Scotland shows that transwoman prisoners have reverted to their male identity as soon as they were released from women’s prisons, to the distress of the women prisoners who had been held alongside them. It would be interesting to know how many prisoners who claim to be transgender but do not possess a GRC are found by these boards not to be “sincere”, or to be too dangerous to be moved to the women’s estate.

The judges were satisfied that these processes of risk assessment and management are enough to discharge the duties of the Secretary of State in respect of the human rights of the women prisoners, even if it leaves them feeling distressed and afraid, and places them at increased risk of violence or sexual assault. The judges accepted all of these adverse consequences for women. And under the current legislative framework and case law, this may well be the legally “correct” conclusion. But this does not, of course, make it the right thing morally; the law can, and often has been wrong. And it is hard to think of a better example of UK law being blatantly wrong than this.

Beyond moral outrage over inevitable outcomes, there are concerning inconsistencies in the current policy. If risk assessment and management is thought to be enough to protect women from male violence, surely the same could be applied to the protection of transgender prisoners on the male estate? The sad truth is that the first “headline requirement” of the policy — “All individuals in our care must be supported to express the gender with which they identify” — leads to a burden of risk being placed on some of the most vulnerable women in our society.

This burden is not aimed at protecting transgender prisoners from violence, but at supporting them in expressing their gender identity. The cost to women, whether in physical attacks or simply in fear and distress is, by the formulation accepted by the judges, and by judges in cases before them brought by trans prisoners seeking relocation to the women’s estate, simply part of the “balance of rights” that has been deemed appropriate. Even within the constraints of the law as currently understood, though, it must be possible to frame a policy more respectful of the rights and interests of women prisoners.

Kate Coleman, director of Keep Prisons Single Sex, who supported this judicial review, emphasised to us that:

“This judgement is not the end of the matter. Our group of supportive and active MPs and Peers is growing and this week we have emailed out 30 PQs to be asked across both Houses. Going forward, Parliament will be a focal point for our efforts: if it is lawful to house a male prisoner convicted of rape alongside female prisoners who have been the victims of sexual assault, then the law needs to change.”

You can contribute to the KPSS crowdfunder here.

Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Women and Equalities select committee, once flippantly remarked that concerns about transgender prisoners were an overblown reaction to one high profile case. We hope, in light of the case bravely pursued by FDJ, that Nokes and her committee will take urgent renewed interest in the rights and wellbeing of women prisoners.

Radical: Keira Bell’s case is a national scandal. It should have never taken a court hearing to halt the harm of children.

8 Dec

Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical. She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this fortnightly column on trans, sex and gender issues, and are co-authors of the article below.

The tide continues to turn. The judgment handed down in last week’s Keira Bell case is the latest example of pushback against the agenda of the gender-identity activists who’ve captured our institutions. Regular readers will know we believe this capture not only damages our democratic processes, it represents a serious direct threat to some of the most vulnerable members of our society.  

Over recent years, many concerns have been raised about the practices of the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) — the UK clinic addressing the needs of under-18s who experience ‘difficulties with their gender identity’. Foremost has been concern about the medical interventions GIDS have undertaken on children. These fall into two categories: the prescription of puberty blockers, from around age 11, and the prescription of cross-sex hormones, from age 16. The number of children referred to GIDS has famously rocketed, with 2,728 children (between the ages of four to 18) referred in 2019-20.

The Bell case — more formally, Bell and Ors v Tavistock and Portman — represents the culmination of concerns about GIDS, and puberty blockers in particular. The claimants, Bell (referred to in the judgment as Quincy), and Mrs A (the mother of a 15-year-old girl) brought a judicial review against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, in respect of its practice of prescribing puberty-suppressing drugs to persons under the age of 18. Bell, now 23, had been prescribed these at 16, then quickly moved on to cross-sex hormones, before a double mastectomy aged 20. Soon after, she realised the emotional and mental difficulties she’d felt as a teenager were not, after all, a sign that her true ‘gender identity’ was male, and thus ‘solvable’ with hormones and surgery.

The court case turned on the question of whether children treated by GIDS — such as Bell, and Mrs A’s daughter — were capable of giving informed consent, in the legal sense, to such interventions. GIDS, and the NHS trusts that administer these interventions, proceed only if they consider a child is competent to give consent (it wasn’t their practice to proceed on the basis of parental consent alone). The test for competence in English law derives from the 1986 Gillick case, in which it was established that under 18s can consent to treatment if they have sufficient maturity and intelligence to understand its nature and implications.

In the Bell case, three senior judges found the use of puberty-blocking drugs in treating gender dysphoria to be experimental, to lack a firm evidence-base and clarity of purpose, and to have consequences that are ‘highly complex and potentially lifelong and life changing in the most fundamental way imaginable’.

GIDS had argued that blockers can be stopped, and don’t necessarily lead to cross-sex hormones and surgery. But the court found that, in actuality, taking these drugs almost always puts a child on that medical pathway, and that ‘once on that pathway it is extremely rare for a child to get off it’. A child would, therefore, need to be able to weigh up not just the immediate (and poorly understood, even by specialists) medical consequences of taking blockers, but all the consequences for their future health, relationships, fertility, and sexual function.

Unsurprisingly, the court found it highly unlikely that children aged 13 or under would be able to give informed consent, and doubtful that 14- or 15-year-olds could. A court order will now, therefore, generally be required for blockers to be prescribed to them. For children aged 16 and over (where there’s a presumption in law they can give consent), the capacity for informed consent was considered more plausible, but clinicians will need to apply to the court for consent in cases where there’s doubt the treatment will be in the child’s long-term best interests. 

The judgment is a damning indictment of GIDS’ clinical practice. Its clinicians were criticised for their lack of data on the ages of the children they’d ‘treated’, on the number or proportion of these children who’d been diagnosed with autism or mental-health conditions, and for failing to track the outcomes of their patients into adulthood.

But, if you’re thinking these findings might’ve led to contrition from GIDS, and all those who’ve advocated for these interventions, then you clearly haven’t been following these matters. One of the reasons institutional capture is so dangerous, is that it prevents necessary accountability and redress. Often, legitimate criticism simply cannot get through. And if you’ve ever voiced concerns about GIDS, you’ll know too well about the personal costs involved in speaking out.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, there’s been a serious backlash against the Bell judgment. Stonewall took a predictable line, and Jolyon Maugham QC compared it to the HolocaustLiberty and Amnesty International made emotional claims that showed they hadn’t understood the judgment. Mermaids’ founder was taken to task by Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis for making unsubstantiated claims about suicides amongst gender-dysphoric children. And the UK’s National LBGT Adviser made claims about puberty blockers that the court had expressly found unsubstantiated. GIDS itself is continuing a legal action against a former member of staff who raised the alarm about the use of experimental hormone treatments on children. 

At Radical, we’re saddened and worried that it’s taken a court case to call a halt to what is so obviously an example of the exploitation and harm of children. All children are vulnerable, but many of those referred to gender clinics are particularly so. Yet their mental health problems have been left undiagnosed and untreated, their bodies subjected to experimental drugs, and their physical and mental development threatened in ways many of them will still fail to understand.  

The case vindicates Bell’s brave quest to prevent others undergoing the ordeal she’s suffered. And also the work of Transgender Trend — which has tirelessly campaigned to raise awareness, and facilitate open debate about these issues, and was allowed to submit evidence in the case. 

But what’s urgently required now is full recognition of the abhorrence of what’s been going on. Because this isn’t just about proving consequential harm. As the judgment shows, children, who cannot even consent to these life-changing interventions, have been deemed capable of determining they should take place. As we’ve written before, the problem is not just, therefore, that decisions about these matters are irreversible, or even harmful; it is that a child is incapable of making such a serious decision, in a sufficiently reliable manner.

Yes, some children — unlike Bell — may feel grateful in later life for having undergone these interventions, regardless of any personal costs involved, such as the lack of fertility and sexual function. But if a child is incapable of making a choice, then it is incoherent and wrong to see any preference they may seem to display, as a child, about the matter, as a ‘choice’. And if a child then goes on to feel happy about the consequences of what happened as a result of that ‘choice’, this does nothing to justify the decision of the adults — charged with the child’s care — who allowed them to make that ‘choice’.   

That this has been happening is an affront to human dignity. Recognising the harm these children have suffered is vital. But beyond that is the most basic abnegation of responsibility: parental, clinical, and societal. And demands for proof of harm are themselves a horrific moral failure. Nobody should have needed that to know the deep wrongness of what has been going on. Urgent institutional change, proper access to appropriate mental-health treatment, and serious accountability and redress are required — now.